Wednesday, April 4, 2007 | In an effort to attract more recruits to the San Diego Police Department, the city of San Diego has cut in half the number of questions asked of new recruits in their initial written test. Police Department and city of San Diego representatives say that doesn’t mean they’re lowering their recruiting standards, and other experts agree with them.

The first step on the road to becoming a San Diego police officer is to complete a written test. The tests are held three times a month across the city and are aimed at assessing a candidate’s basic reading, writing and reading comprehension skills.

Making the Cut

  • The Issue: The San Diego Police Department has halved the number of questions on its written test, the first stage for becoming a police officer.
  • What It Means: The department says its “streamlining” the recruitment process. Experts say fewer questions won’t make the test any easier.
  • The Bigger Picture: The San Diego Police Department is losing an average of 14 officers a month. Attrition remains a serious issue for the department, which has been locked in labor negotiations since mid-January.

The police department has been giving the same test to potential recruits for more than 10 years. Faced with a growing crisis in recruiting and retaining police officers, the SDPD’s recruitment department recently decided it was time to overhaul their testing methods and set about offering more user-friendly exams more often.

Capt. Robert Kanaski was the driving force behind the new recruitment efforts. In addition to adding an extra test date each month, he said his main focus has been on shortening the examination itself to make it more palatable for potential recruits. Kanaski stressed that the new test does not compromise on standards, that it’s a “streamlined” examination, and that it is a more efficient use of potential recruits’ time.

“I wanted a shorter test that was going to test the knowledge of candidates and not their endurance,” Kanaski said.

In shortening its test, San Diego has brought itself more into line with other police departments around the country. The written test to enter the Los Angeles Police Department is comprised of three essay questions which are then evaluated by city staff. In San Francisco, the police department uses a 110-question test issued by the California Commission on Peace Officer Service and Training.

P.O.S.T. was set up in 1958 to establish minimum training guidelines for California law enforcement. Though the organization plays a critical role in evaluating other elements of San Diego’s recruitment process, particularly the local police academy, it does not oversee the written tests.

Ken Krueger, bureau chief at P.O.S.T. in Sacramento, said his organization does not “sign off” on the written exams issued by each law enforcement agency. How each department chooses to test its candidates is up to it, he said.

In San Diego, the examination of city employees, including officers, is overseen by the city’s personnel department. Jeannette Lapota, a senior personnel analyst at the city, drew up the new police test.

Lapota said the personnel department sent out questionnaires all over the police department to ask officers what skills they thought new recruits should have. Those questionnaires were then evaluated by a committee of experts from within the department, who narrowed down the core attributes necessary of new officers. Lapota worked with the committee to form the questions that are now on the test.

“We had a great deal of data,” Lapota said. “So we were able to streamline our process without compromising any quality.”

Bryan Marvel, a director at the police officers’ union, was skeptical of the changes to the police test. He said the burden of proof is on the city to show that they have not lowered their standards. He said the fact that San Diego is losing 14 police officers a month should have no effect on how difficult it is to become a police officer here.

“If there was a shortage of attorneys, you wouldn’t make the LSATs any easier,” he said.

But just because the test is shorter, doesn’t mean it’s easier, said Bruce Topp, who manages public safety examinations for the city of San Francisco. When told how the city of San Diego’s personnel department created its new exam, Topp said it sounded like they had done a very thorough job.

“I don’t think there’s anything very controversial there,” he said. “You talk to different test developers and 75 items is probably in the ballpark.”

Rulette Armstead, a retired San Diego assistant police chief who now teaches law enforcement administration at San Diego State University, said written tests are generally a poor indication of how good of an officer a candidate is likely to make. As such, she said she doesn’t think reducing the number of questions in the exam will make any difference to the quality of officers that eventually end up on city streets.

“The shortening of that test does not excite me,” Armstead said. “I think it will initially separate people who can read and write and have good common sense from those who can’t, which is what you need.”

After the written test, prospects face a physical examination, a background check and a psychological profile before reaching the police academy.

Correction: In the original version of this story, we referred to Rulette Armstead as a retired San Diego assistant police captain. Armstead is a retired assistant police chief.

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